[4 December 2012]
About halfway through Vacilador, the latest from Illinois’ the Giving Tree Band, the penny finally dropped for your well-meaning but none-too-bright record reviewer: these guys are in thrall to the Grateful Dead. Not the psychedelic Dead of “St Stephen” and “The Other One” and Blues For Allah, but rather the Americana of American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead. Once that mini-revelation burst across my consciousness, I started seeing pieces of it everywhere: in the skulls and roses on the album cover, in the songs like “Ragweed Rose” (echoing the Dead’s “Ramblin’ Rose”), in the less-than-awesome cover version of “Brown Eyed Women”, a Dead song originally from Aoxomoxoa.
More important than any of that is the overall tone of the album, a mostly acoustic, vaguely rustic affair featuring a loose, organic sound and raspy vocals that call to mind Jerry Garcia’s unschooled roughness. This is not to say that the Giving Tree Band are merely Dead clones—they’re not—but the influence is obvious.
Album opener “Cold Cold Rain” kicks off with a galloping beat and an unexpected touch of brass floating over its acoustic strumming and harried, fast-paced vocals. Things slow down considerably for “Higher Than the Levee”, a pretty enough song that lacks much oomph. Vocal duties are shared between brothers Erik and Todd Fink, Eric playing Garcia to Todd’s Bob Weir. As with the Dead, the grittier voice is more engaging by far.
And so it goes, with uptempo numbers alternating with slower pieces. Accents of banjo, mandolin and other mostly-acoustic instrumentation creep in among the guitar and keyboards, but the overall vibe is one of low-key mellowness. There is nothing abrasive here, and little enough that could be described as aggressive. At its worst, the band melts into a puddle of aimlessness, as with “Miss You Now”, a song that meanders along for more than four formless minutes before finally giving up. This is followed by one of the better songs on the album, “Dead Heroes”, which features some muscular guitar playing and lyrics that manage to be evocative without being obvious.
This mixed-bag approach is evident throughout. “Dark Star”—ooops, I mean “Quiet Star”—is another slow number, one that benefits from a banjo accopaniment to lend a bit of sonic variety, while “Ragweed Rose” makes good use of its peppy melody and committed vocals. For every strong song, though, there is a weak one. “Once or Twice Before” just staggers along, nearly collapsing under its own weight despite the chiming keyboards and swooping guitar lines.
The album ends strongly. “River King”, chugs along satisfactorily, the Band-style, for the duration of its six-plus minutes, and even builds to something of a crescendo. “Forgiveness and Permission” manages to evoke a moodiness that is absent elsewhere on the record, while album closer “Thief” is the longest song on the record, and one of its strongest. An old-timey sounding ragtime waltz, “Thief” brings a singalong chorus and a tone that is simultaneously lighthearted and wistful. It’s an effective way to close out the record, even if—God damn!—it sure sounds like Jerry is singing.